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March 28, 2011

College Football Report - Washington State Emerging From the Depths of College Football:

At first glance, the 2010 football season for Washington State doesn’t appear like anything more than a repeat performance of its previous two miserable campaigns. The key part to that sentence, however, is at first glance.

When things go bad for the Cougars, they go really bad. Think of a cruise liner hitting, not just the tip of the iceberg, but instead the entire mass of ice. With four wins in the last three years, it really wouldn’t appear the Cougars football program is heading anywhere but under.

I suppose then, it would come as a surprise if you actually found out that Washington State is a program about to emerge in the Pac-12.

In 2008, thanks to wins against FCS opponent Portland State and in-state rival Washington, a 2-11 season was scrapped together. The only major college football team worse than the Cougars that year, was in fact Washington, who finished 0-12.

The offense barely averaged over 12 points a game, with a meager 241 total offensive yards. The defense was even worse, giving up a staggering 43.8 points a game. In only one game did the offense score more than 17 points. It wasn’t the greatest way for new head coach Paul Wulff to enter the program.

Those expecting a better year two for Wulff were sadly disappointed. While the cross state Huskies rebounded from a winless season to a 5-7 record, the Cougars sank to a 1-11 outing.

The offense again averaged just 12 points and 249 yards. The defense got better in points given up, but the improvement wasn’t noticeable at still 38.5 points.

Needless to say, expectations for the 2010 season weren’t exactly high around the Palouse. After a blowout against Oklahoma State in the opener, a narrow escape of FCS Montana State in the home opener, loss to SMU in game three and pounding from USC in game four, already low expectations dwindled. Cougar’s fans were just hoping for a team to take the field come October.

Not surprisingly, a team did take the field, but it was a team with a different attitude. The once over by halftime games the Cougars had been famous for had disappeared.

UCLA took the Cougars to halftime with just a 20-14 lead. In game six, Oregon trailed 14-8 in the first and went to halftime with just a 29-17 lead. Stanford beat WSU by just 10, allowing 28 points. Cal found themselves down at halftime, and only up 14-13 entering the fourth, while narrowly escaping with a 20-13 win. Oregon State was pounded 31-14 at home by the Cougars.

In the last game of the year, rival Washington would need to scrape together a last minute drive to beat the Cougars 35-28, scoring with just 44 seconds remaining.

Washington State was losing, sure, but losing with enough attitude to fight the next week, something that had been missing in the program for the latter half of the decade.

The 2011 season marks a start of the new Pac-12 conference . Stuck with the likes of Oregon, Stanford and Washington in the North division, the Cougars face an almost impossible feat to take the league during the 2011 season. They do however have a few things working in their favor for a much improved 2011 season.

On offense, they’re led by rising junior passer Jeff Tuel, who threw for over 2,700 yards and 18 scores in his first full season as the starter. Sophomore wideout Marquess Wilson was one of the best kept secrets in college football in 2010, catching 55 passes for 1,006 yards and six scores during his true freshman campaign.

On defense, the Cougars are led by junior defensive end Travis long, who led the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (10.5) as a sophomore last season. At linebacker, senior Alex Hoffman-Ellis and sophomore C.J. Mizell form an impressive and underrated tandem. Hoffman-Ellis finished second on the team in tackles last season with 81, while Mizell, a true freshman from Tallahassee, Fla., brought in 57 stops, with six for a loss.

The 2011 schedule features a winnable first half of the season, with early games against Idaho State, UNLV, San Diego State, new Pac-12 member Colorado and the struggling UCLA. Later meetings against Oregon State at home and California on the road, should also be considered winnable games for the Cougars.

On paper, a five or possible six win season isn’t out of consideration.

With all the reasons for WSU to head into the 2011 season with optimism, there are reasons to worry and areas that needed to be addressed during spring ball.

The running game ranked No. 117 in the nation in 2010, averaging just 2.6 yards a carry. Tuel was sacked 48 times and the line gave up 108 tackles for loss. The rush defense gave up 220 yards on the ground an outing, good for No. 115 in the country.

For all of the problems WSU had in 2010, Wulff and the coaching staff appeared to make an attempt to correct them already during the short offseason.

The Cougars signed seven JUCO lineman, including three offensive lineman. Rico Forbes and Taylor Meighen, both JUCO offensive lineman, are in for spring practice.

Running back Rickey Galvin, a 5-foot-8, 170 pound California product who was sidelined with a broken arm after just one carry last season, appears ready to take over. As a senior at Berkley High, Galvin led the Bay area with 2,264 yards and 24 scores on the ground, but was passed up by locals USC and Cal.

The steps to digging themselves out from being the laughing stock of the college football world has begun and the players capable of doing so look to be in place.

Don’t expect any conference titles or shocking upsets at Autzen Stadium come next fall, but just like that seemingly impossible to miss iceberg the program was heading for, there’s much more to the 2011 Washington State football program than meets the eye.

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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